Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra
Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello
Pieter Wispelwey (vc);
Seikyo Kim, cond;
ONYX 4058 (63:37)
Is it incumbent upon the critic to be really “into” the music of a given composer in order to write an intelligent, cogent review? Probably not, though I’m sure it helps. It troubles me
greatly, however, whenever I find myself, no matter how hard I try, unable to appreciate the work of a composer deemed “great” by a preponderance of critical opinion; for it is then that I begin to wonder if there isn’t something wrong with me. Why can’t I hear it, too? This has long been my problem with Benjamin Britten. To be sure, there are a few of his works I enjoy, but they’re mostly his more accessible compositions—the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the
A Ceremony of Carols
being three examples. But many of his more advanced and complex works leave me perplexed and scratching my head. What am I missing?
Then, in a review by Peter J. Rabinowitz of a recording of Britten’s Cello Symphony by Truls Mørk and Simon Rattle in
23:5, I thought I’d found a fellow skeptic; for Rabinowitz opens with a bit of a shocker: “It may be a heretical position, but I’ve found that many of Britten’s works, even some of his most admired, suffer from a failure of will, a tendency to tread water with neutral material where a more definitive emotional statement seems called for. This retreat is most extreme in such garrulous works as
Rape of Lucretia,
but it’s heard in some of his more concentrated efforts like the cello suites, too.” At last, I thought, a respected critic who has the same problem with Britten that I do. Alas, Rabinowitz was quick to add, “It would be hard, though, to level this accusation against the Cello Symphony—it’s one of his most emotionally unrelenting and intellectually tough-minded compositions.” So, there I was, still twisting in the wind.
Well, here’s another bit of a shocker. It’s hard to know for sure whether I just happened to be in a more receptive mood when I auditioned this new release or if there was something very special about it, but I was absolutely awed and riveted by what I heard. It may be the cellist’s own introductory note that opened my ears. “What a formidable powerhouse of a piece!” Pieter Wispelwey writes. “The opening scene practically a war zone in which a dragon of a pseudo-passacaglia emerges, exuberant, feasting in a ciaccona, a haunted scherzo, and a big roar of an Adagio. From the menacing darkness of the opening to the light of the orgiastic closing hymn, the contrasts in this piece are phenomenally stark.”
How can you not be caught up in the splendid baroque horror of such a drama? Will the warrior, cello bow in place of crossbow in hand, slay the dragon? Or should we root for the dragon? Britten dedicated his 1963 fire-breathing beast to the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who recorded it at least twice that I’m aware of with the composer at the helm, once for EMI with the Moscow Philharmonic and again for Decca/London with the English Chamber Orchestra. While Rostropovich’s performances led by the composer may be the definitive word for some, the aforementioned recording by Mørk and an even more recent one by the outstanding young British cellist Jamie Walton surely afford excellent playing as well as updated sonics, the latter a not insignificant factor given the orchestral complexities of the score.
Joining them is renowned Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey, whose last entry in these pages, a recording of Schubert arrangements for cello played on period instruments (see 33:6), left a very poor impression of the artist’s talents. With this Britten disc, Wispelwey restores and enhances his reputation as one of the world’s leading cellists. Britten’s Cello Symphony is a tough slog, no less for the listener than for the players. But Wispelwey seems to revel in the combat, never once missing an opportunity to thrust his sword into the belly of the beast. I can honestly say that this is the first time I’ve been able to listen to this piece and not only follow its unfolding logic but actually thrill to its life-and-death struggle. Conductor Seikyo Kim, the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, and the Onyx recording play no small part in the success of the enterprise. No detail of Britten’s Bosch-like musical mural depicting evil vs. good goes unrevealed. The dragon is slain in the end, but not without taking an enormous toll in spent blood and treasure. Is the Cello Symphony, like its close contemporary companion, the
, another of Britten’s comments on the unspeakable horrors and tragedy of war? I suspect it is.
Britten’s friendship with Rostropovich was further cemented when the composer agreed to provide the cellist with a set of suites for solo cello. In the tradition of Bach, six were intended, but Britten completed only three before he died. The No. 1, op. 72, heard here, has received a number of recordings by eminent cellists, including its dedicatee. But Matt Haimovitz, Timothy Hugh, and, once again, Truls Mørk have also contributed fine accounts.
Wispelwey has already offered his thoughts on all three suites twice before—on a 1992 Globe CD, and 10 years later on a Channel Classics CD reviewed by Ed Reichenbach in 25:4. But that’s not all. On an Onyx recording of a 2007 live Sydney concert featuring Walton’s Cello Concerto and works by Bloch and Ligeti, Wispelwey may be heard playing Britten’s Suite No. 2 a third time.
The Suite No. 1, written in 1964 shortly after the premier of the Cello Symphony, is in nine movements laid out in three pairs of two, each pair prefaced by a Canto. While Britten’s musical vocabulary in no way resembles Bach’s, his technical approach to writing for the instrument leans heavily on Bach’s demanding requirement that the cello engage itself in thoroughgoing contrapuntal dialogue. Wispelwey’s playing makes it all sound natural and effortless.
This is a great recording, one that you should not pass up.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 by Benjamin Britten
Pieter Wispelwey (Cello)
Flanders Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1963; England
Length: 36 Minutes 11 Secs.
Suite for Cello solo no 1, Op. 72 by Benjamin Britten
Pieter Wispelwey (Cello)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1964; England
Length: 25 Minutes 18 Secs.
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